Tuesday, December 21, 2010

After the solstice full-moon eclipse: Building and sustaining community for work and play

December 21, 2010 

As we turn from last night’s winter solstice with its full moon eclipsing and then refilling, luminous over the southwestern horizon, as the sun fills this morning instead of snow falling, our cycle rotates with increasing light, longer days, and opportunities.  The darkness hasn’t disappeared; life must have always felt precarious to anyone wide-awake.  How, then, do we live into opportunity, not nostalgic and not too innocent?

I have to force myself to shut down Tweetdeck in order to attend sufficiently to my work, which paradoxically means being increasingly tuned into the internet, into a network trying to be community, the local/global perplexity/necessity, and trying to engage constructively the critics of public education.  The key turns on unifying instead of making divisions, on building common ground instead of attacking or dismissing.  That’s hard.

And it pushes me toward notions and places I have dismissed.  A few hours ago over coffee, my wife and I discussed the presence and absence of community.  The conversation brought back memories from a lost age, of rubbing shoulders with family members or strangers brought together in a task too large or sad for a neighbor to bear alone.  It seemed so small at the time, these acts of moving furniture, clearing rubbish, or digging postholes.  In that small-town culture, in those work-parties, I’d have wandered in my mind, “Some day I’ll do something important like write a book or . . .”  Perhaps I lived into the ellipsis; we’ve travelled a long way from the mundane anyway.

Now I wonder if those potlucks and moving parties were somehow stitched together into a non-obvious pattern that gave the grounding to growth, to support an expanding consciousness about the big things in which the cold war, the segregation, the religious and ethnic hostilities could turn less harsh.  An increased vision for social justice, peace and freedom must have depended on the common breaking of bread and sweating together.  What does all that mean today?

I think it means that in this culture we simply need to value the small moments.  We can carve out times to touch shoulders in good work and in unscored softball or horseshoes.  Because the crush of too-busy means these moments will be spaced further apart, we’ll need to stitch ourselves together with social networking.  We can do it.  Building and sustaining community for work and play: the key.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Remember warehouse depositories of used books
Where people like us, readers of lost lines
Wonder at pages dissolving in the scent of must.
Entire shelves of someone’s dreams still
Enclosed in cellophane wrap like unopened gifts.

How many artists and poets lived out the quiet
Desperation, yet to be discovered by a patron,
A newspaper magnate, a rich widow? Who
Knows the meaning but inhabitants of the ark
While all the world swims unaware?

The powerful, at least those elected to office,
Sound eloquent, passionate, into the lens
In a mostly empty chamber, into midnight,
Speaking for the record, and changing sides
With the tide. Yet don’t be disillusioned.

These monuments sculpted in stone, in wax
From candle-lit moments or in twittered text
That evaporates almost instantly give breath
While we wait out the flooded time so hope
Slowly crafts the vessel to carry us home.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Post the 12-16 Omnibus

December 17, 2010

In the aftermath of last night’s jarring political action in which the Senate dropped the Omnibus bill, I’m reading my morning paper: The NWP Daily http://paper.li/dogtrax/nwp). In recent weeks, I’ve felt jerked around quite a bit as the House, the Senate, and the White House played around with taxation and funding. I’d watched the Senate floor live via cspan and read various commentaries on the compromises and negotiations over earmarks. I’d made numerous calls to congressional offices and urged persons associated with our University of Maryland Writing Project to engage in advocacy for National Writing Project funding. Most of us know it by experience as by far the preeminent professional development for educators. The House dodged, the White House compromised, and then the Senate dropped the ball. My feelings might condense into a title posted on Twitter this morning: “All I want for Christmas is my profession back.” (http://jasoncourtmanche.blogspot.com/2010/12/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-my.html )

That’s a bit of the context in which I looked at the Kevin’s generous gathering of news. Just under the banner, on the top left of the front page was an item from budtheteacher:

Third place

The third place is
a term used in the concept of
community building to refer to social
surroundings separate from the two
usual social environments of home and
the workplace. In his influential boo...

So I was skimming, ok? Given the terms “community,” “home,” and “workplace” and the almost exact letters, I read it as “third space,” which is a rich and complex concept from Homi Bhabha (Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994). But the link didn’t give attribution to Bhabha and seemed incomplete, so at some point I looked closely enough to see it was “place” not “space.” Now I was into it, though, wondering why this was featured in Kevin’s news and on Bud’s radar screen.

I haven’t figured that out, but I was pulled back into “third space” which has lodged in my consciousness by Bhabha’s provocative writing about hybridity in culture with the potential for . . . well, although I don’t know if Bhabha or Kevin or Jason or anyone else would say it this way, but I sense it’s about making peace. The mess in Congress mirrors the bipolar divisive thinking and action that’s all over our world, that powers hostile words and wars. Third space gives a transformative alternative to this.

I began to wonder if NWP-ers were in position to act with this concept. I think we already are, at our best, as we bring forward an experiential empowerment that shifts the locus of external “expert” authority from assessments, edicts, and lecturing and moves it toward constructivist local knowing. Trying to be appropriately modest yet empowered, we-NWP-ers have the complexity of thought to engage third space and to broker between the haves and the have-nots. Can we bring that capacity to our advocacy work involving hotly divided Reds and Blues in government?

If we are to move into that audacious work, we might consider the writing about political situations. I’m still wading slowly through Bhabha—actually, it’s staying on the shelf while I’m trying to write our Continued Funding Application. I’m troubled by the funding morass and distracted from trying to manifest a third space between/within university and school systems that barely share common language and have many hidden agendas consuming most of our resources. Perhaps it helps to summon the energy needed by connecting with the vision in third space. I’m remembering the notion of “universal audience” (Perlman?) in which we write not for the actual contingency but with an eye toward our vision. In NWP, we’ve also had the taste of the vision.

And I read from another twitter lead yesterday that persons in their 60s have higher emotional intelligence than others, and this means (according to the published research from I forget where, but can find it if you need to know) that we older guys can see/construct more opportunity in apparently negative circumstances (than younger folks, including us when we were there). So let’s take a deep breath and try.

If you want more of the sense of “third space,” you might try out something I found in a quick Google search. Paul Meredith gives a fairly readable and condensed version. He wrote a dozen years ago (http://lianz.waikato.ac.nz/PAPERS/paul/hybridity.pdf ) that “the emergence of a cultural politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand concentrated and contested around the binary of Maori (the colonised) or Pakeha (the coloniser).” Notice the similarity to the situation in our government and funding situation. Meredith continues, “The dichotomous categories of ‘us/them’, ‘either/or’ have alarmingly found an increased currency resulting in adversarial polarities premised on exclusion and purity.”

Yet within this difficulty, he sees the opportunity with the third space. I’ve copied about 7 sentences that offer language for catching the vision of transformative work, possible by NWP-ers at this time as we move ahead past December 16:

“Thus, the third space is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a productive, and not merely reflective, space that engenders new possibility. It is an ‘interruptive, interrogative, and enunciative’ (Bhabha 1994) space of new forms of cultural meaning and production blurring the limitations of existing boundaries and calling into question established categorisations of culture and identity.

The concept of the third space is submitted as useful for analysing the enunciation, transgression and subversion of dualistic categories going beyond the realm of colonial binary thinking and oppositional positioning. (Law 1997) Despite the exposure of the third space to contradictions and ambiguities, it provides a spatial politics of inclusion rather than exclusion that “initiates new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation.” (Bhabha 1994: 1) . . . the possibility of a cultural politics that avoids a ‘politics of polarity.’

Any redesign must recognise and provide for the hybridity dynamic of those relations. This redesign should take place in an alternative ambivalent site, a third space, where there is ongoing [re]vision, negotiation, and if necessary, renewal of those cultural practices, norms, values and identities inscripted and enunciated through the production of bicultural ‘meaning and representation’. (Bhabha 1994)”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Passion & Education

Lee Kolbert (http://macmomma.blogspot.com/ ) recently posted the provocative question:

I appreciate being reminded of this question. It reminds me of the elders who know to ask each time they walk in the well-worn ritual circle: “Are we going the right way?” Passion offers guidance, but it encompasses suffering as well as excitement and, therefore, may not always be immediately the platform for leading others. I believe it is the basis for finding the place to build the character, knowledge, skills, and compassion to lead.
Many persons are so hungry for the fervor of passion that they are susceptible to following someone with the exterior signs of it. A person may also attempt to lead others prematurely. As repeatedly demonstrated by tragedies associated with charismatic cult leaders as well as by wasteful trendy educational “solutions,” this is dangerous and/or a distraction to progress. A person who has not yet gone deeply enough with passion to develop wisdom and care may not be able to offer safe passage for others.
The true leader I respect wants others to follow their inner truth more than he/she wants the ego boost of having followers, or worse yet, worshippers.
I wonder, then, if passion comes before educating. As suggested by McTeach's response to Kolbert's question, a person’s passion may lead away from educating. An educator whose passion is elsewhere, may be in the wrong profession; and a person whose passion has not been pursued deeply enough to offer safe practice may not be the best teacher.
I take seriously the direction given by Joseph Campbell and others to “follow your bliss.” That path seemed to lead me away from teaching to story and horses, and it brought me back with a joy for learning and with more respect for inner truth.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Home on the Path

Frost’s poignant poem about the two paths diverging wants extension in my experience. What about the unmarked path that forms while walking, made as a person’s nose develops a more acute sense of place? Perhaps it’s a recovery of an inborn gift that gets lost because it’s devalued by our externally-driven culture. Perhaps we’re born knowing the truth but we forget.
For thirty-plus years, I wandered the billboarded highway of an academic profession filled with organizational conferences and refereed journals and merit-pay discipline. As I did so, the intrinsic quality of situated knowing retreated further and further into my interior. For me, the academic pathway filled with a crowd, while I felt increasingly alone, lost, and farther from home.
Truth and home cannot abide the bashing by external expertise, the grand theorizing that’s divorced from “felt sense,” and the celebrating of keynoters, whether in the crowded ballroom or in the session with more presenters on the panel than in the audience. I’ve walked each of those rooms, lecturing and listening, storytelling and applauding, thinking I was home or getting there, but the hollow gnawing grew.
The quality of truth that I long for can’t be found around places characterized by loud arrogance, especially my own. My voice goes shrill and abandons me when I forget to respect the penetrations of authentic experience. Sarcasm or even a faint smirk betrays me, and if I’m paying attention I feel the lie.
Truth won’t hang around the “poor-me” either. The part that came in as a birthright, following Wordsworth’s clouds, seeks out big questions, like those a child asks, and risks searching for them. Truth befriends the courage to stand up, to discern, to risk, to act for good.
When I’m honest, being abandoned by my own truth hurts. My sense of being home cannot be severed from feeling that truth is nearby. If these two are separated, I’m haunted by the loss. It’s easy then to get drugged-out and not even know it. Overdosing on food, drink, spectator sports, or internet activity hides the pain, temporarily. But to wake up seeing my life lived out inauthentically hurts worse, especially when I’ve felt how good it feels to live with integrity.
As so often happens in the old tales, one day a stranger came to the village; in this case, it happened to be the university building where I was tenured and officed. My apprehension of and longing for the authentic, like the faithful semi-sleeping dog, woke up and started sniffing the air. Where did that strange resonance track? It reminded me of something like yeasty fresh-baked bread, like home. It led to the National Writing Project.
The path with the politically-correct meetings then got left in favor of something more like what we used to call “bush-whacking,” getting off the well-traveled path to seek out the hidden treasure. Although it wouldn’t mean merit-pay increases, I decided to apply for an NWP site, because these were the folks who were committed to local knowing and to supporting the teachers who would risk theorizing their own practice. Most of the persons in positions of power still don’t understand what that means. Maybe they never will.
Perhaps a person can be home and alone, but family offers advantages. With the National Writing Project, I’ve found I don’t have to be alone with my convictions about situated knowledge. These family gatherings of twenty or more persons have affirmed meaning that is actually grounded in significant experience; and the experiences are not just personal but are on the quest of social justice, joy of learning, increased tolerance, healthy ecology, and respect for multiplicity.
My breath deepens with the feel of home and the presence of friends. The home-path prioritizes respect for situated knowing, enriches it in a discourse community that theorizes practice, and leans into continuous inquiry that moves toward a world ecology of peace and justice.
That’s what I love about the National Writing Project.
In a world where so much of what I hear does not ring true, I want a home that dispels cynicism and affirms integrity. We can work toward education that helps persons discern what is true. Citizens can learn to read the tone of voice of would-be leaders and vote according to the presence of integrity and commitment to social justice. We can take on the challenge of moving ourselves and others toward better alignment so that we do walk our talk and so that our policy statements and actions align with peace, justice, freedom for all, and the other values affirmed in our constitutions and creeds.
Doing this is what I love about the work of the National Writing Project.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Would Be Twenty-Five

Moving toward mid-life, whenever that

May be, we charge mountains. Big things

Make up that world. Mist comes and goes,

Monstrous hills turn windmills. We sit

Down; through the long day we chased the light

That sinks, then slides up our shadows silvery,

More modest now, the subtle slowly

Makes friends with a murmur in the heart.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

“Last year I was not smart. This year I am."

In the wee hours of the morning, preparing to leave National Writing Project Annual Meeting 2010, I ponder how we got here, and how to respond to the lawmakers who threaten to push us prematurely through the door at the bottom of this stairwell marked “Final Exit.” Ending the day’s sessions a few hours ago, Sharon Washington stilled a noisy room, climbing atop a chair, urging us to contact our senators. The fall-out from midterm elections appears to have been seized by opportunistic legislators to make points with a populace in panic. Senator Coburn’s acting on his threat to sweep out discretionary funding with a simplistic action: “America did just fine for 200 years without earmarks, and Congress will do just fine without them." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/15/AR2010111504511.html )

Prescriptive, one-size fits all, thinking has always been an option. The principles of democratic government, liberatory education, and responsible living must always strive to reach above self-serving, simplistic final solutions. Now, as ever, is not the time to join the panic. The fear climate, characteristic of our political landscape, makes a set-up for drastic action in which a few will benefit but many will be harmed. The leaders of the United States of America that I respect and follow realize that public education requires dedicated teachers who have been supported to build communities of learners even in an environment hostile to independent thought and threatened by immediate gratification. These leaders have the strength and courage to move ahead with the grace to admit mistakes which are the inevitable consequences of creative progress rather than succumbing to doubts of the fearful.

One exemplar of supporting teachers, the National Writing Project, the best I’ve known in my 40-year career in public education, faces the risk of losing funds from the taxes we pay. I want my representatives to invest wisely, not to jump ship, not to follow rash, fear-mongering tactics. Stand tall enough to distinguish the work that indeed serves all our children, including those “at risk,” those who have been harmed, those most in need of visionary leadership who see above the panic. Look at the heavens, the way leaders have done, far beyond 200 years ago. Listen to the child in a NWP teacher’s classroom who says: “Last year I was not smart. This year I am. I don’t know why but I like it.” http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/677

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From Classical Rhetoric to Citizen Journalist

In my engagement with our discipline,[1] social justice has always been the foundation stone, the defining raison d'être; but teaching and research haven’t rendered it sufficiently operational, not at the truth-telling, gut level. The resulting dissonance has pushed for change, even if glacial, stretching over a long career in education and literacy. About a decade ago, my own business card featured “liberatory education” (with a bow to Paulo Freire), but the gap between his call to praxis and my actual practice was almost mocking.

Going another twenty years back, I remember the resonant amen that involuntarily rose up when I read “The teaching of literature is a political act,”[2] because that declaration affirms life worth living. To a lover of narrative, Leslie Marmon Silko also struck the chord when she opened Ceremony: “I’ll tell you something about stories: They’re not just entertainment.” But these compelling assertions also heighten frustration because most classroom acts (such as the analysis of text and even performance of text) offered at best a limited approximation to real-life acts of liberation theology.

My service in residential treatment centers was on target but begged the question: how does this penetrate the totality of work? Surely Freire lived with more integrity in his enactment of literacy which connected land reform with peasants learning to read, even when his success meant political exile.

Liberatory education has translated into many academic projects (e.g., Giroux; Shor; Apple),[3] but such scholarly accomplishment doesn't resolve the tension for me. In addition to physical property (land, capital, and economic investments), equity demands attention to knowledge production and ownership. Freire modeled this by insisting that the peasant ask him an equal number of questions that he could not answer. Literacy education requires a more equitable distribution of authority/authorship than afforded in traditional, hegemonic practice. Yet even knowing that doesn’t translate us into liberatory praxis. We’re too imprisoned in a print-culture, educational system (which celebrates copyright, high volume publication, and individual authorship with close scrutiny for plagiarism).

Under this stress, to some extent I chose to separate from this profession that perpetuates inequities in knowledge (e.g., "merit" based on top-down conference presentation and high-volume refereed publication). Although I won’t elaborate it here, an option came from Jungian psychology which believes that an individual’s movement in consciousness connects with changes in collective consciousness. These changes can be accomplished outside the professional structure and I can view them as liberatory, but this was not entirely satisfactory. Something more was being conceived.

In recent years, while I continued struggling with literacy as conscientização (critical consciousness), a separate but compelling storyline was taking form. Surprisingly, digital media started taking up more and more space. And now, converging on the bridge, the light of their connection breaks out so “duh:” Citizen journalism. The term even gets elaborated in Wikipedia which notes that almost anyone wanting to take on social responsibility can take action through the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet.

I believe this construct of citizen journalism offers discourse a revolution (although ethical participation still requires commitment to social justice and desire to expand consciousness). For example, Jay Rosen revitalizes the construct of “audience” because blogs, podcasts, and digital media restore to the people what media magnates had misappropriated in their control of newspapers, radio, and television.[4] For this revolution to lead to positive change, educators must shift paradigms to a truly collaborative model and act as models of peace and justice. For learners who are already immersed in technology, if not addicted to it, powerful teaching is needed even more than before. Although social justice is certainly not the default theme for digital media, opportunities of access and collaborative engagement offer exciting alternatives to the dominant force.

Citizen journalism popped onto my screen, not through the power brokers in education or media, but through TweetDeck with an invitation to http://salaamgarage.com/. SalaamGarage is “a digital storytelling, citizen journalism organization that partners with International NGOs and local non-profits. Participants (amateur and professional photographers, writers, videographers, etc.) connect with international NGOs, create and share independent media projects that raise awareness and cause positive change in their online and offline social communities.” The SalamGarage blog shows examples and invites the reader to travel to India, Guatemala, and other places with an agenda that often means composing a social justice media project.[5]

Although not branded as such, citizen journalism now appears frequently on my radar. It’s trackable in the script for tonight's presidential address on education.[6] It’s connectable through corporate support for humanitarian projects.[7] Youth Noise and Link TV invite media production involving social justice with projects involving poverty, hunger, and health issues. One of my favorites shows a woman forced to leave teaching (due to the Taliban) and developing a beekeeping industry in Afganistan.[8]

The theme of citizen journalism and social justice can be developed in cutting-edge digital media work at the boundary of public education. Leadership has been provided by the MacArthur Foundation, often in collaboration with National Writing Project. Featured projects are happening in Philadelphia and in Chicago. A number of other projects are happening around the world.[9] The connection of literacy with digital media clearly marks the place for our writing project.

[1] Naming the discipline remains elusive but the field has been named Rhetoric, English, Communication, Language Arts, etc.

[2] A.N. Applebee, Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History, NCTE, 1974.

[3] An interesting website gives citations for these authors: http://florycanto.net/links/liberatoryeducation/libedbooklist.html

[4] http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2006/06/27/ppl_frmr.html

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SBQDeib1qw&feature=player_embedded

The 2010 World Humanitarian Day project is a collaborative film shot in over 40 countries in under 9 weeks, on a shoestring budget – with the goal of showing the enormous diversity of places, faces and endeavors of humanitarian aid workers in 2010. It was filmed by humanitarian staff and freelance filmmakers from around the globe (over 50 contributors in total) with all time donated.

[6] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/09/13/remarks-president-barack-obama-prepared-delivery-back-school-speechAnd the strength and character of this country have always come from our ability to recognize ourselves in one another, no matter who we are, or where we come from, what we look like, or what abilities or disabilities we have. I was reminded of that idea the other day when I read a letter from Tamerria Robinson, an 11-year old girl in Georgia. She told me about how hard she works, and about all the community service she does with her brother.”

[7] http://www.gatesfoundation.org/foundationnotes/Pages/melinda-gates-100902-view-change.aspx Melinda Gates, “To me, the stories I hear underscore the fact that, no matter how different people’s circumstances, we’re all linked by a common humanity. When I meet mothers, it’s clear to me that we all have the same goals: for our children to grow up healthy, and then get an education, so they can realize their full potential.

At the Gates Foundation, we think a lot about telling stories. One of our partners, LinkTV, is creating ViewChange.org, a multimedia website that uses stories to show how investments in global health and development are making real differences in real peoples’ lives. The website is scheduled to go live in November.

This summer, the ViewChange team launched a contest urging filmmakers to submit short videos about progress toward the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – global commitments to dramatically decrease poverty, hunger, and disease in the developing world. These films will be used to raise awareness, motivate action, and accelerate the world-wide movement for global equity.”

[9] Links to MacArthur projects are shown first and then a variety of other activities that might merit exploration.


Renee Hobbs at Temple U. The mission of the Powerful Voices for Kids program is to strengthen children's abilities to think for themselves, communicate effectively using language and technology tools, and use their powerful voices to contribute to the quality of life in their families, their schools, their communities, and the world. The program consists of these components:


Digital Youth Network in Chicago. The DYN model focuses heavily on the sixth- to eighth-grade experience through explicit connections to school-based curriculum, interest-based clubs that require youth to use new media literacies in order to participate, and remix competitions and “open shop” times (both virtual and place-based) where youth are supported in using new media literacies to explore their own questions and push their imaginations.


Carnegie-Knight Institutions (including UMCP) for Journalism work:


The goal of the instructional component of this website is to provide journalism educators with material that can help their students to develop knowledge-based journalism skills. The student assignments are designed to inform and deepen the reporting of policy issues by connecting it to scholarly policy-based research.

Great topics for reporting:



Creating Digital Worlds of the Future By: Michael Silverberg September 1, 2010

Under the theme "Build Your Own World," more than 100 artists are creating fanciful universes in the hopes of prompting civic engagement at this arts-and-tech biennial in San Jose. We peeked at six intriguing projects.


Global Kids (New York, NY), a strength-based youth development organization with over two decades of experience working with young people and technology, constantly seeks new ways to explore and answer these questions with diverse groups of youth. This article describes a pilot project that linked youth detention centers with community libraries in two cities, to work specifically with incarcerated youth and new learning technologies.


MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual Field Trips for Kids, is a dynamic, interactive site, which encourages individual expression and participation through video submissions from children worldwide. Through these video pod casts we hope to create a community of children, who learn the art of self-expression and storytelling through video.

In the beginning, the video pod casts highlighted the people, events and history of New York City. As this site grows through children’s submissions, we hope to highlight the people and events of other towns, cities and nations. To date we have video podcasts from California, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas, and Maryland. We are always open to the people and events in your corner of the world.


Glynda Hull, UCBerkely. Most recently, with colleagues from India, South Africa, Norway, Australia, and Singapore, she has developed a social networking site, space2cre8.info, which links youth around the world and fosters the exchange of digital artifacts.

http://newlearninginstitute.org/21stcenturyeducation/student-centered-learning/online-learning-for-disaffected-youth.html Notschool.net and http://www.comein-project.eu/index.php



Digital storytelling, participatory media and easing access to mass media for public expression from Wales BBC.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Revision & Digital Media

(Note: please see http://vimeo.com/14125482 for the digital project that is the topic of this blog.)

Bonnie Kaplan—“bless ‘er ‘art” interjects a voice, probably echoing from my mother’s culture, as I begin to tell of my meeting with Bonnie some months ago. I’m a bit surprised at that voice and those words but guess they want to affirm at the outset Bonnie’s good heart in relation to what happened then and since then. Bonnie had wanted to tell me something for a few weeks, but she’d waited for a time when she could read the dynamics of face-to-face interaction. I’d sent her my latest digital creation, which she’d acknowledged; but the claims of our growing friendship were urging her to go further. I like to imagine that that impulse comes from more than the personal, and I believe our interaction and collaboration inheres in the responsibility toward professionalism and even in the ethic of social justice that inspires my commitment (and that of many others, including, I believe, Bonnie) to the work of the National Writing Project, particularly that involving digital media.

So Bonnie had waited until we were talking face to face at the NWP 2010 Spring Meeting in DC to respond more fully to my digital story* “On Knowing.” I’d mostly thought I was done with that project, but something had lingered from the composing, nagging, something unarticulated that I couldn’t quite push away. I was telling myself that I felt pretty good about it, but I detected in Bonnie’s uncharacteristic restraint that there was some feedback I hadn’t yet heard. While we’d exchanged comments on each other’s work a few times, we’d stayed mostly in the polite zone. Now, bless her heart, Bonnie wanted to risk telling me something that I really needed to hear, that is, if my expedition in digital media was going to move ahead.

So in the hotel lobby after the Friday morning sessions, Bonnie said something that synopsized in my memory as: “You’re a deep thinker, Joseph; and that music you put on for background stinks.” She mentioned other particulars, both positive and negative; but that music part grabbed my attention and joined up with that internal nagging that I’d tried to ignore.

Although the critique hurt a little, I respected Bonnie’s judgment in general, and in particular concerning music. After all, she cared enough to be studying classical guitar. After our conversation, she caught her train back to NYC and I left wondering about it all. Other priorities intervened, but the need to revise “On Knowing” persisted. Any still moment might be filled with a question like: In addition to convenience and copyright-free, why had I pasted that frolicky number on top of my voice-over? The stink of a cover-up was in the air.

In time, the wonderful Summer Institute closed, and the space seemed sufficient for revision. I forced myself to listen to the work and dove deeper into the motivations inherent in the process of its creation. Insights began to open offering the gift of revision in its genuine sense. First, the music just plain didn’t fit as background; it interfered just as Bonnie accurately pinpointed. The words and the music were discordant in tone, and consequently meaning was getting lost. I began to see that this was sabotaging my whole project. And I suspected, the damage probably wasn’t limited to one project because that kind of shadowy action tends to permeate in different degrees until it is brought into conscious thought and action.

Most of us don’t like to hear our own voice when we begin to put voice over or to use video in which we’re speaking. When Bonnie told me straight up that the music was getting in the way of what my digital media potentially offered, of what my distinctive voice had to say, I was put on the road to realize that I was hiding behind a screen of pleasant noise in the genre of shopping mall muzak or disneypark lala. Ouch. That’s something I want to revise.

In my long engagement with rhetoric, I’d struggled often with style. At first, I’d demanded that style never dominate “content.” Over time, I admitted the falseness of the dichotomy, and I began to discern the shrill ugly tone in my insistence. I came to realize that I agreed with the classical premise I’d been taught in grad school: “style is the (hu)man.” Put into contemporary language, any separation of style and content fractures integrity. And I believe that the power and right of rhetoric vests in integrity.

The discordance, then, between the music (as one aspect of style) and the words (as one aspect of the human) increased in significance. Why would I make digital media that way? I came up with two possible reasons beyond the superficial not liking of the sound of my voice: 1) I was somewhat embarrassed with the serious nature of what I was presenting and feared that I'd sound too much like a sermon; and 2) I wanted to cover over or distract from issues with organization. What if the piece wasn’t really coherent? What about the lack of unity? Were subparts effectively subordinated? Was I too preachy?

After taking some time to absorb this discovery which involved conceptual revisioning, I went back to the piece and managed to reconstruct it, to revise in practice. Although more could be done, I focused on getting rid of the soundtrack. I added brief lead-in and closing from what I’d recorded of a good friend playing guitar. But for most of the seven minutes, I chose to leave my bare voice out there. It seems that’s what has to be done if I’m really going to get further in this digital media work. If it’s received as too preachy, I hope some friends will help me learn to tell it differently. Similarly with the organizational difficulties, I’m going to have to put it out there and be willing to learn, to revise, and to welcome more constructive criticism.

As evident in this account, I learned more and more about revision. I already knew that it was much more than the reductionist editing routines; but I hadn’t appreciated so fully the variety of more substantive acts of revision: to see again, to re-see after being seen, to make a new vision. The resources of digital media open doors to the value of re-visioning through this capacity to see again and again, to be seen by others, and to make changes that offer improved visions built on increased insight and consciousness.


* Although “digital story” is the term typically used for what we’re doing (with Photostory, imovie, movie maker, Pinnacle Studio, and Final Cut), I don’t think the process nor the product fits sufficiently with “story.” I have great affection and respect for “story,” but the form of what I’m doing in digital media production spreads out, octopus-like, outside the perimeters and expectations of narrative.

Also, the dismissive attitude that many academics turn toward “story” doesn’t do justice to the work or the form of digital media. We could redefine the scope of narrative, along the lines of David Boje, but I prefer the open search for another emergent construct, like Gee’s “DMAL (digital media and learning).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Convergence Culture

I just finished reading Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old & New Media Collide (2006; updated 2008). As one who entered digital media late and from classical rhetoric, this book worked extremely well for playing catch-up, especially about the rich texture of participatory culture. Baffled by the appeal of contemporary media (Survivor; American Idol: and the Matrix), I eagerly soaked up his interpretation of these which explained them in the context of "large scale collaborative knowledge communities" that were made possible with the web. His elaboration of trans-media storytelling further brokered the transmutation of what I value in rhetoric and narrative into the contemporary media with open access not only to spectatorship but also to production and to community. I already liked Harry Potter but came to appreciate even more its relationship to how "kids are mapping out new strategies for negotiating around and through globalization, intellectual property struggles, and media conglomeration."

Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins avoids the polarizing tendencies typically found around media activity and criticism. His conclusion and afterword reach toward the best of what has compelled me toward a lifetime of engagement with rhetoric and symbolic action. As suggested above, his depth accounting conveys the resurrection of hope and the potential for democratic activity through the grassroots engagement in media production and publishing about both personal and social matters. But he also shows the limitations of this ground-up dimension. Although he doesn't label it as such, the king archetype is needed to balance the everyman/woman/child. The final answer is not to abolish mass media because it potentially offers a public space needed for a world vision (to which Jenkins references Habermas). This balance connects with his title: convergence culture.

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the popular voice, sometimes referred to as the "fan." The significance of Jenkins' work can be seen in this paragraph from his conclusion (p. 267). In it, he also venerates the timeless essential place of story.
"Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths. Here, the right to participte in the culture is assumed to be 'the freedom we have allowed outselves,' not a privilege granted by a benevolent company, not something they are prepared to barter away for better sound files or free Web hosting. Fans also reject the studio's assumption that intellectual property is a 'limited good,' to be tightly controlled lest it dilute its value. Instead, they embrace an understanding of intellectual property as 'shareware,' something that accrues value as it moves across different contexts, gets retold in various ways, attracts multiple audiences, and opens itself up to a proliferation of alternative meanings."

I don't believe our children automatically develop into "fans" of the quality Jenkins just named, and I don't believe their unguided engagement in Web 2.0 makes us into persons characterized by these values either. Transformed teaching and teachers are vitally needed to meet the opportunity provided by the convergence culture. Jenkins' book calls us toward an "achievable utopia." Supporting teachers to be able to play their role in this demands a comparable act of accomplishment. That's what I believe we are about in our projects around Digital Media and Learning and in our work with the National Writing Project.